As much as Cal Poly head football coach Tim Walsh has done to separate this year and last, it appears as if a couple of troubling trends have continued.
Losers of all six road games a year ago, the Mustangs dropped another one last week with four more to go before they next play in Alex G. Spanos Stadium again.
Whether No. 20 Cal Poly (2-1) is able to buck that trend today against No. 19 McNeese State (1-1) might heavily depend on the other emerging similarity between Walsh’s first two seasons at the helm in San Luis Obispo.
The Cal Poly offensive line just can’t seem to stay healthy.
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The Mustangs’ starting line this week is comprised of all-Great West Conference second-team guard Will Mitchell, backup center Geoff Hyde, true freshman Lefi Letuligasenoa at the other guard spot and two tackles whose own injuries have limited their practice time.
“Art Munoz only practices once a week,” Walsh said. “Scott Winnewisser only practices once a week. So, we’re practicing with our twos on the offensive line. It hurts us, and it hurts us from a game-conditioning standpoint, too.
“We’re so nicked up on our offensive line that it’s hard to practice. You’re practicing with your twos, and the twos are going to make mistakes. That’s why they’re twos. We’re just fighting through it.”
The storyline is similar to last season, when the Mustangs lost three-year starter Munoz to a broken leg in the second game of the year. It took him nearly an entire year to heal before he could even practice again.
Mitchell missed a start because of a minor injury, and center Hal Kelley — himself a replacement for injured three-year starter Jason Cox — was banged up enough that coaches had to pull Hyde out of his redshirt year with three games left in the season. Winnewisser and guard Maurice McClure seemed like the healthiest of the bunch. Each started 11 games in 2008, but McClure suffered a shoulder injury early in training camp this year and is now nursing a foot injury that is expected to keep him out this week.
Winnewisser has been day-to-day since training camp, too, and Kelley is still expected to miss the next couple of weeks with a knee sprain suffered against Humboldt State in the season opener.
Also this week, Walsh ruled out sophomore tackle Giovanni Sani — who started last season after Munoz went down — for the rest of the year with shoulder trouble.
There’s never a good time to have three offensive linemen out, but timing could be especially troubling, considering that the Cowboys returned 10 of 11 defensive starters from last year’ 9-3 team and are led by a decorated line.
Junior defensive tackle Desmund Lighten is a preseason All-American, and defensive ends Josh Ellison and Terrance Freeman are both preseason all-Southland Conference selections.
“The strength of their team is the defensive line,” Walsh said. “They’re big, they’re fast. They’re a very legitimate, scary defensive front. We’re hoping that what we do on offense can slow them down a little bit. And make them more assignment oriented, which will hopefully allow us to do everything we need to do.”
Teammates and coaches have praised Cal Poly sophomore quarterback Andre Broadous for his ability to use his legs to make something out of nothing.
Broadous, who’d been limited by an ankle injury of his own the first few weeks of the season, is expected to get his first career start in place of Tony Smith, a senior out for the second straight week with a neck injury, and Doug Shumway, a sophomore who rescued the Mustangs in a 35-33 comeback win over then-No. 1 Montana and started last week’s 21-12 loss to Texas State.
Broadous played two series at the end of the first half against the Bobcats, rushing nine times for 31 yards and going 1-for-2 passing for 2 yards.
With Cal Poly’s lack of depth in front of him, he’ll likely have to flash some of the fancy footwork that’s earned him praise in practice if the Mustangs aren’t able to contain McNeese State’s defensive front.
The Mustangs have struggled to pass and get their slotbacks involved in the running game.
Four of the top five rushers are fullbacks and quarterbacks, and the 94 yards per game the Mustangs are averaging through the air would be a lot less if not for Shumway’s surprising 83-yard touchdown pass to David Mahr against Montana.
Cal Poly didn’t have a pass play longer than 9 yards at Texas State as the Bobcats succeeded in forcing the Mustangs to try to beat them without getting long gains from leading receiver Dominique Johnson or West Virginia transfer running back Mark Rodgers on the outside.
Coming off a bye, McNeese State coaches have had two weeks to prepare for Cal Poly’s triple option, plenty of time to also digest the strategies of the Mustangs’ opponents this season as well.
Well aware, Walsh would still prefer not to force the ball to any spot on the field.
“When you start trying to create big plays, you can create disaster, too,” Walsh said. “So, we’re going to create some things, but we hope that, through the normal input into our offense, some big plays will happen.”